Fundraising via Photography: an Interview with Tobias Houston

originally posted January 15, 2016

Tobias Houston is an Australian expat based in northern Mozambique. We’ve been friends since he first arrived a few years ago and I asked him during one of our infrequent afternoon runs together (hey, we were living 3 hrs from each other!) if he could share what he learned during a recent experience he had back “home” doing fundraising by selling some of his favorite prints.

Tell me a bit about you and your work…

I’m an Aussie living in Lichinga, the capital of Niassa Province of Mozambique along with my wife and three young kids. We’re here as “cross-cultural workers”, or missionaries if you want to use a more traditional term.

I’m excited about the possibility of Yawo people in Mozambique having good access to the Bible in their own language. Not only for the spiritual side of things, but also for the development of the Yawo as a people group in the 21st century. Culture is not static…there’s no reason to think that Yawo culture isn’t developing.

What kind of media do you most enjoy producing?

Since living in Mozambique, my interest in photography has developed into something of a hobby – one of the few hobbies that are available to expats here. Therefore, I most enjoy producing photography – particularly of the world that I live in here that most people don’t get to see.

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How have you been able to use your photography as a fundraiser?

When in Australia on our recent furlough, a number of people said to me that they would love to see more of my photography (I’d already been sharing on Flickr and my website). My photography was also being heavily used by our own organisation, Global Interaction, for a lot of their publications. Anyway, based on the interest, I decided that we would run a fundraiser of my photography to help get us back to Mozambique.

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What worked really well?

One of the key things that worked really well in terms of sales was using the Stripe app on my iPhone. This app enabled me to conduct credit/debit card transactions on the spot for people who didn’t have cash with them. I also set my website up for online ordering, and although it wasn’t used very much, it was good that it was there for people to look at.

At church meetings, I set up a display table with a sample print along with a framed price list and the other products (see below). I did my best to set up an attractive and impressive display. This worked well as it caught people’s attention.

That said, it was vital that it was spoken about during the church service otherwise many people simply walk out the door without noticing the display.

What didn’t work so well?

The fundraiser was HARD work. It took weeks of preparation to make sure the products were of sellable quality. I didn’t want to be selling rubbish. Although it is good to listen to advice, and you can never get enough of it, also be prepared to back yourself and your own decisions.

The biggest thing that didn’t work so well was that we produced too many prints at someone else’s advice. I’m not laying the blame on anyone else, but in hindsight I’d started the fundraiser too late for the amount of prints I produced. If I had got the prints ready for when we first arrived in Australia, I would have had time to sell more, but as it turned out, I’ve got half the prints left over. I did break even pretty quickly though, so it’s not as though I’m in debt.

What types of prints did you try to sell?

The primary product was a 12×18 inch print in a 20×24 inch black matte ready for framing. Each print came in a plastic sleeve, had a sticker on the back with my logo and website and a title, number and signature (hand written). There were 10 different prints to choose from ranging from landscape to people to wildlife. All were African.

I also produced a pack of blank folded greeting cards. Each pack contained 4 cards, with each pack being the same (but different photos on each card). These packs came with envelopes and were presented in plastic sleeves. Each card had my logo/website printed on the back.

The big hit for the fundraiser was 2016 calendars. We designed them using InDesign as opposed to a template design service (which made the product far more professional). The calendars were immensely popular and we had to produce a second print run.

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